Thursday, February 26, 2009

North from Nata

Posted from Kasane, Botswana

This is the region we have been warned about constantly. There's wild animals there. Lions, elephants and buffalo (oh my). Be careful of elephants, some would say. Don't get closer than one kilometer; they can go from 0 to 40 kph instantly. Others say elephants are not dangerous, just big. However, watch out for buffalo. Or lions. Build fires after dark, we are told. Find an armed police escort. The military will provide one. There's leopards too. Don't worry, you'll be fine. Elephants are friendly. Don't go. You're not afraid of animals? Take a gun. The Massai warriors can kill a lion with just a spear. But not you. Build circles of fire all around you. Pour one liter of diesel fuel in a circle around your camp to keep the snakes and scorpions away. But most of all, just build a fire.

As we traveled north from Nata, the landscape changed abruptly. The trees gave way and all around was flat grassland, then a wide flat shrub land. This was the wilderness. There were no fences, no sign of human habitation except the long straight road and a radio tower on the horizon. The bushes encroached on the shoulder, but it wasn't a problem for us. There was virtually no traffic to contend with.

Soon, the shoulder disappeared. Here, the wilderness began taking back the road, one pothole at a time until they became craters and the traffic drove beside the road rather than on it.

In this place, elephant trails are common. I looked up to see a pair cross the road 200 meters in front of me. Then two more, off to the left, a cow and her baby. I made sure to give them lots of room.

We stopped for lunch under a shade tree, and Orian professed an appreciation for this road that we were all feeling.

"I'd recommend this route to any cycle tourist," he said.

"It's the best road we've ridden yet," added Quinn.

It was a great day for cycling. The tailwind gave us a strong boost. The sun continually disappeared and reemerged from the clouds until late afternoon when a storm system poured on us. Then it was sunny again, just long enough to dry us a bit before we stopped.

The land transitioned again, into a tropical dry forest. We flew through the warm rain for half an hour, then made for a radio tower in the distance. We hoped it would have a little road and maybe a clearing that wasn't frequented by elephants. Between the five of us we'd seen 10 in the 125 kilometers since Nata.

The tower was better than we could have imagined. There was an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire and the gate was held closed only by a loop of wire. This is the way to secure yourself from animals.

"Now, we're in the fence," remarked Orian.

"When the animals can't be caged, we cage ourselves," said Quinn.

As we set up we heard noises in the bush so we rushed up the tower in time to spot four elephants moving away. To the west the rain we had endured obscured the sun and to the east the next system moved in.

We scaled the tower again in pre-dawn light to watch the sun rise. From 270 feet up the land is remarkably flat and you can see forever. Over 360 degrees there wasn't a single light. The complete lack of human habitation provided a very visual indication of just how far away we were.

You don't get to do that on the tour.

The trees grew from gray to vibrant green as the sun rose, darker green for the shrubs and lighter for the taller trees. Elephant paths networked through the forest, visible even from the top of the tower.

We climbed back down the swaying tower to regain the road. It really isn't that bad. The bathtub-sized potholes and heaps of elephant dung served mostly to slow down the cars and trucks rather than hinder us.

This day provided more elephants, zebra and some baboons. Midmorning we caught sight of a giraffe, then several more. We left our bikes by the side of the road and snuck into the bush to get a closer look.

You don't get to do that on the tour either.


Michael said...

A wonderful account, Nathan. Wilderness is always worth the cost to find it.

cr said...

So how many fires did you end up building?

Nathan Hurst said...

we occasionally build fires for cooking, but between Nata and Zambia we built no fires; there was no need, even though there were suspiciously large feline prints in the trail outside our radio tower compound.

Lindsay said...

You create beautiful pictures with your words. I am quite jealous of all the sights you are seeing.